The Bills took the unsentimental route, waiving a trio of aging
Salary-cap-strapped teams could learn a valuable lesson from the
way the Bills conducted business last week: Never let
sentimentalism get in the way of a contract decision. Declining
to offer even the NFL minimum salary, Buffalo released used-up
33-year-old running back Thurman Thomas and bitter 36-year-old
wideout Andre Reed. The Bills told one of the game's best
defensive ends ever, 36-year-old Bruce Smith, that he too would
be waived if he didn't take a $2.4 million pay cut next season.
No dice, Smith said, and he got whacked too. So as teams
tightened their belts for the start of the free-agent signing
period last Friday, three players who were instrumental in
taking Buffalo to four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s were on
"It's sad, but they're not the guys carrying this team anymore,"
Bills coach Wade Phillips said. "In today's football you had
better realize things can't go on forever, and you'd better be
ready to change when you have to."
So while teams such as the 49ers and the Vikings try to hold
together rosters with fading veterans, the Bills have cleared the
way for rising young talent. Peerless Price, a second-round draft
pick in 1999 who finished with 31 catches, will step in for Reed.
Phillips hopes unproved multipurpose back Shawn Bryson, a
third-round choice in '99, can replace Thomas. Marcellus Wiley, a
second-round selection in '97 who had five sacks in limited duty
last year, will take over for Smith (who was quickly signed to a
five-year, $23 million contract by the Redskins). As Buffalo
linebacker John Holecek said last week, "Just as I had to replace
a legend, Chris Spielman, other people can step in and replace
Buffalo has retooled well since the end of the Jim Kelly era in
1996. The Bills, along with the Titans, rank third in the league
in victories over the past two seasons, with 21, trailing only
the Jaguars and the Vikings (25 each). Depth may become a
problem--Buffalo lost valued free-agent cornerback Thomas Smith
to the Bears on Sunday and may still lose Pro Bowl guard Ruben
Brown--but the Bills have drafted well and have a solid
quarterback tandem with Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson. "Now," says
A.J. Smith, the team's director of pro personnel, "a few more of
the guys America hasn't heard of will have to step up and become
Early Winners and Losers
SAINTS STRIKE GOLD WITH BLAKE
With the kickoff of the free-agent signing period, several teams
wasted no time opening their checkbooks. Here are the highlights
of the first weekend.
Best deal: The Saints signed the league's most underrated
quarterback, 29-year-old Jeff Blake, to a cap-friendly,
four-year contract that averages $4.3 million a season. Blake
says there were times in his six trying seasons with the Bengals
that "almost made me want to stop living," notably when Boomer
Esiason, Neil O'Donnell and Akili Smith were brought in to play
ahead of him the past three years. "With adversity came
maturity," Blake says. "No situation scares me now." That's
good, because New Orleans scored the third-fewest points in the
NFL last season. Blake has become adept at knowing when to throw
and when to scramble, mixing the two better than any other young
quarterback in the game.
Worst deal: The Cowboys traded their first-round picks in 2000
and 2001 to the Seahawks for a speed receiver who is reluctant to
go over the middle, Joey Galloway, then gave him a seven-year,
$42 million contract, which included a $12 million signing bonus.
Dallas already has a deep threat, Rocket Ismail, and with Michael
Irvin's playing days apparently over because of a spinal
condition, quarterback Troy Aikman needs a versatile tough guy to
run intermediate patterns and routes over the middle. Instead,
the Cowboys dealt for a 5'11", 188-pound player too slight to
take NFC East beatings.
Best decision: The Colts signed tight end Ken Dilger to a
five-year, $15 million contract, keeping him from exploring a
possible move to the AFC East rival Jets. Indianapolis also saved
its franchise tag, meaning the designation will be available when
wideout Marvin Harrison's contract runs out after next season.
Worst decision: Lions defensive end Robert Porcher, who will be
31 at the start of the 2000 season, turned down a five-year, $35
million offer by Detroit. The contract included a $13 million
signing bonus. Not bad for a guy who averaged a good but not
great 12.25 sacks a year over the past four seasons. The Lions
slapped the franchise tag on Porcher, fixing his salary next
season at $4.2 million unless the sides can agree on a long-term
deal or he signs with another team willing to give up steep
Parcells Family Ties
A CHANGE IN ALLEGIANCE
The latest episode in the Jets-Patriots soap opera provided the
oddest transaction of last week: New York pro personnel director
Scott Pioli, 34, left the club to become New England's assistant
director of player personnel. He is also married to one of the
daughters of Jets director of football operations Bill Parcells.
Pioli will head up pro scouting for the Patriots and have a say
in the draft, which he never had in his three seasons with the
Jets. Bill Belichick, the longtime Parcells aide who last month
backed out of his commitment to succeed Parcells as Jets coach
and became the Patriots' head man, had brought Pioli, his trusted
former Browns scout, to New York in February 1997. Pioli met
Dallas Parcells, a marketing executive, at the Jets' offices the
following May. They were married last June.
Belichick called Parcells last week to ask permission to hire
Pioli, who was under contract until May. After first denying the
request, Parcells reconsidered. He knew Pioli would be improving
his position in New England. He also knew Pioli's future with the
Jets would depend on whom new owner Robert Wood Johnson IV brings
in to replace Parcells, who has indicated he won't remain with
the organization long-term. "I don't want to get too gushy about
Bill, but I've learned a ton of lessons from him in the past
three years," says Pioli, "and now he's taught me another one."
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Smith (78) will go down as one of the great NFL defensive ends, but the Bills believed his game had been slipping.
Unless Dan Marino gets a call from the Bucs, offering him a
chance to compete with Shaun King for the starting job--which is
unlikely, considering the sideshow it would create--his NFL career
appears to be over. Marino voided the final two years of his
Miami contract last week but hasn't attracted any more interest
around the league than he has from Dave Wannstedt's new regime in
Miami. "Unless he can find the optimal situation," says Marvin
Demoff, Marino's agent, "Dan won't play." ...
Defensive end Orpheus Roye had only nine sacks in four seasons
with the Steelers, but the Browns handed the free agent a
six-year, $30 million contract. Folly? Probably not. Roye played
in a 3-4, in which the ends get extra attention from the
offensive line. In the Browns' 4-3, the quick 295-pounder should
get to the passer more often....
The two men who were key in the return of instant replay in
1999, competition committee cochairs Mike Holmgren and Charley
Casserly, have stepped down. Two men who dislike replay have
been appointed to the committee--Bucs general manager Rich McKay
and Cardinals general manager Bob Ferguson. However, both men
believe replay will return. "I don't think it belongs in the
game because the game belongs on the field, but it was a plus
this year," says Ferguson. "I'll be stunned if we don't keep
The Cowboys have always been tight-fisted when it comes to
paying linebackers. Last week the club tendered restricted free
agent Dexter Coakley a one-year, $1.02 million offer. Coakley, a
Pro Bowl player in '99, would receive the highest single-season
salary for a linebacker in franchise history.